UN Climate Convention


The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) once again failed to take concrete steps to avert the ever-worsening climate crisis at its 14th Conference of the Parties (COP-14), held December 1-12 in Poznan, Poland. This failure has been widely denounced by social movements, climate justice groups, and indigenous peoples organizations that have already begun to organize a mass mobilization around the next Climate Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, scheduled for December 2009.

The day before the Poznan meetings began, activists from the Copenhagen-based climate activist group KlimaX, who are helping plan the 2009 mass mobilization, climbed onto the front of Copenhagen’s Bella Centre and unfurled banners demanding, "Social Change Not Climate Change." Next year’s UN Climate Conference (COP-15), which will take place within the Bella Centre, is where a new climate agreement is to be finalized that will succeed the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012.

The failure of the 2008 Climate Conference was criticized by Friends of the Earth International, which stated, "Industrialised countries failed to demonstrate their commitment and leadership to reducing emissions: Industrialised countries did not advance talks in this area at all from one year ago. The identical text from the 2007 Bali talks has been inserted in the Poznan text…these countries have shamefully wasted an entire year of inaction."

Activists have further condemned the UN Climate Conference as nothing more than a "carbon trade fair" geared toward generating billions in profits for some of the world’s most polluting industries under the guise of climate action. Industries, they explain, are using the Climate Conference to force their "business as usual" agenda onto the world’s poorest countries for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. Many activists have dubbed the UNFCCC as the World Carbon Trade Organization, the climate WTO.

The dominance of the industrialized countries in controlling the agenda of the climate talks was blatantly evident when representatives from some of the world’s poorest countries were denied visas until several days into the climate talks. Ben Donnie, head of Liberia’s five-person delegation, explained, "We feel very frustrated and think the delay for our delegation to attend the 14th session of the UN Climate Change Summit will gravely affect us." Liberia’s delegation was held up in Nigeria for a week before the Polish Embassy there granted them visas, according to an article written by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Climate Change Media Partnership.

Even the launch of a fund designed to help small and poor countries adapt to the conditions brought on by climate change was hopelessly inadequate. The UN has conservatively calculated that climate change adaptation will cost between $28-$67 billion per year by 2030, but the new fund has only $80 million committed to adaptation. With banks and big business being bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars, the $80 million for the poorest countries to cope with climate changes caused by industrialized country emissions is absurdly small.

Climate Justice Now! (CJN!), the climate justice alliance founded at the 2007 Climate Conference in Bali, released a statement that further denounced the UN climate process, stating, "The three main pillars of the Kyoto Protocol—the clean development mechanism, joint implementation and emissions trading schemes—have been completely ineffective in reducing emissions, yet they continue to be at the center of the negotiations."

The CJN! statement continued, "Kyoto is based on carbon trading mechanisms which allow Northern countries to continue business as usual by paying for ‘clean development’ projects in developing and transition countries. This is a scheme designed deliberately to allow polluters to avoid reducing emissions domestically."

This, CJN! argued, is due to the undue influence of industry in the climate negotiations: "Private investors are circling the talks like vultures, swooping in on every opportunity for creating new profits. Business and corporate lobbyists expanded their influence and monopolized conference space at Poznan. At least 1,500 industry lobbyists were present either as observers or as members of government delegations."

The preferential treatment received by industry was also seen in climate talks outside of Poznan and the financial crisis has offered new excuses for backpedaling on carbon emission reduction targets. The Third World Network pointed out that at a related European Union climate summit in Brussels on December 12, "The European leaders decided to give free emissions permits at least until 2020 to several of the highest emitting industries, including cement, chemicals and steel. Many of the companies had pleaded for exemptions from their political leaders, claiming that the recession and competition from imports make them unable to take on the burden of paying for permits."

A joint statement condemning this EU decision was issued by Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace, and others, stating: "This is a dark day for European climate policy. European heads of state have reneged on their promises and turned their backs on global efforts to fight climate change. They have chosen the private profits of polluting industry over the will of European citizens, the future of their children and the plight of millions of people around the world."

But it is not only climate negotiations that are emphasizing the importance of market-based mechanisms to tackle ecological problems. During the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Barcelona, Spain in October 2008, the importance of commodifying nature as a conservation strategy was central.

The December 2008 issue of Global Forest Coalition’s Forest Cover ran a critique of the IUCN Congress: "One of the most controversial issues concerned a partnership agreement with the multinational oil corporation, Shell Inc, signed by the IUCN Secretariat in 2007. Life really is commerce these days. The Barcelona conservation trade fair was a clear example. [The] IUCN…literally offered courses on marketing and competitiveness to its membership during the Barcelona Congress. Shell representatives and other Congress members proudly walked around with buttons stating ‘Nature is Our Business.’ These new biodiversity businessmen welcome carbon offset markets and other dubious schemes as a great opportunity to sell ‘environmental services,’ such as forests’ carbon sequestration capacity."

In the United States, use of market-based mechanisms for climate mitigation was also drawing protest. On December 1, in conjunction with the opening day of the Poznan meeting, climate activists took over the Washington, DC offices of Environmental Defense (ED) to protest their complicity in promoting carbon trading and other false market-based solutions to climate change. The action further called attention to ED’s role in establishing the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a business consortium that advocates an emissions cap and trade system with extremely weak emissions reductions targets. The activists charged that USCAP allows major polluters like Shell and Dupont to continue business as usual while claiming to be "green."

Dr. Rachel Smolker, a researcher and agrofuels specialist with Global Justice Ecology Project and Global Forest Coalition, joined activists from Rising Tide North America and Ecuador to occupy the ED office. They held signs reading, "Carbon trading is an Environmental Offense" and rearranged the office furniture pointing out that marketing carbon is like "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic." Smolker then read a statement, which said in part, "My father was one of the founders of this organization, which sadly I am now ashamed of. The Kyoto Protocol, the European Emissions Trading Scheme and virtually every other initiative for reducing emissions have adopted [ED's] market approaches. So far they have utterly failed, serving only to provide huge profits to the world’s most polluting industries. Instead of protecting the environment, ED now seems primarily concerned with protecting corporate bottom lines. I can hear my father rolling over in his grave." ED was then awarded the "Corporate Greenwash Award," a three-foot tall green paintbrush, for their role in greenwashing polluters.

Market-based mechanisms to address climate change also received a sharp critique from Evo Morales, the indigenous president of Bolivia. In advance of the Poznan meetings, Morales issued one of the strongest statements against the commodification of life and the reliance on capitalism to solve climate change: "Competition and the thirst for profit without limits of the capitalist system are destroying the planet. Under capitalism, we are not human beings but consumers. Under capitalism mother earth does not exist, instead there are raw materials. Capitalism is the source of the asymmetries and imbalances in the world. It generates luxury, ostentation and waste for a few, while millions in the world die from hunger. In the hands of capitalism, everything becomes a commodity: the water, the soil, the human genome, the ancestral cultures, justice, ethics, death…and life itself. Everything, absolutely everything, can be bought and sold under capitalism. Even climate change itself has become a business."

He continued, "Just as the market is incapable of regulating global financial and productive systems, the market is unable to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and will only generate a big business for financial agents and major corporations."

Protests occurred throughout the two weeks of the Poznan meetings. An action opposing the role of the World Bank in the climate negotiations was held outside of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) building. Climate justice was demanded on the streets of Poznan as part of the Global Day of Action against climate change on December 6 (over 90 countries participated in the Global Day of Action).


REDD Agreement

The impacts of climate change and false solutions to climate change on forests and indigenous peoples were highlighted by indigenous peoples organizations and climate justice groups, especially with regard to a mechanism called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries). Contrary to its presumed mission to protect forests, the emphasis of REDD is on how to best use the world’s remaining forests as carbon offsets to enhance the profits of polluting industries and industrialized countries and ensure they do not have to reduce their carbon emissions by any significant amount.

In addition, REDD does not address the underlying causes driving deforestation. In their Accra Briefing on REDD, Friends of the Earth International points out, "Tackling the drivers and underlying causes of deforestation is paramount. These include agrofuels, and excessive meat and paper consumption in industrialized and other major importing countries. We must also stop destructive practices in mining, oil and gas exploration and extraction and industrial logging." Otherwise, they conclude, "deforestation will inevitably shift if the underlying causes of deforestation are not addressed."

On December 9, the day before the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, and Australia removed all language recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities from the REDD text and struck references to other relevant international standards, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The Third World Network reported, "They used the phrase ‘indigenous people’ instead of ‘indigenous peoples’ with an ‘s,’ which is the internationally accepted language. This was a battle fought by indigenous peoples for more than 30 years with the UN. The ‘s’ in peoples means that indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination and have collective rights."

The International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIFPCC) responded by staging a spontaneous protest inside the convention. The IIFPCC called for "the suspension of all REDD initiatives in Indigenous Territories until such a time that Indigenous Peoples rights are fully recognized and promoted."

Groups have also united to challenge the very definition of forests under REDD. The final text on REDD made no mention of bio-diversity, opening the door for the destruction of biodiverse native forests to make room for industrial tree plantations. "The conversion of native forests to plantations is bad for bio-diversity, people and the climate," stated Ana Filippini of the World Rainforest Movement. "Human rights, especially women’s rights, are being violated where there are plantations and they should not be defined as forests. In addition, industrial tree plantations impact the climate—tropical forests and grasslands store significantly more carbon than tree plantations," she continued during a press conference organized by Global Forest Coalition, the Wilderness Society (Australia), Global Justice Ecology Project and the STOP Genetically Engineered Trees Campaign at the UN conference.

Sandy Gauntlett, a Maori activist from New Zealand and representative of Global Forest Coalition, added, "The definition of forests under REDD is utterly ridiculous. It leaves wide open the ability of countries to destroy their natural forests and replace them with industrial tree plantations—which destroys wildlife habitat and displaces indigenous and forest dependent communities."

A decision by the 2003 UN Climate Conference in Milan to allow the use of genetically engineered trees in carbon offset forest plantations could further allow plantations of genetically engineered trees to be included under REDD. This would cause genetic contamination of native forests with GE tree pollen and seeds, toxic contamination of soils and water, and destructive impacts on wildlife, songbirds, and forest dependent communities.


Climate Justice Mobilizes

The most positive development that came out of the 2008 UN Climate Convention was both the strengthening of the CJN! alliance and the advancement of the mobilization against the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009. In their final statement, CJN!, which has grown over the past year to include over 160 groups and indigenous peoples’ organizations from across the globe, called for a "radical change" in the UN climate process. CJN! insists that radical change is needed due to the overwhelming infiltration of business interests, the marginalization of NGOs and indigenous peoples organizations, and the almost exclusive focus on market-based mechanisms to address climate change.

In September 2008, over 100 activists from around the world came together in Copenhagen to begin discussions about mass mobilization during the 2009 Climate Conference. The call to action that emerged from the Copenhagen meeting reads in part: "Climate change is already impacting peoples, particularly women, indigenous and forest-dependent peoples, small farmers, marginalized communities and impoverished neighborhoods who are…calling for action on climate and social justice. We call on all peoples around the planet to mobilize and take action against the root causes of climate change and the key agents responsible, both in Copenhagen and around the world."

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Anne Petermann and Orin Langelle are co-directors of the Vermont-based Global Justice Ecology Project. Orin Langelle is the media coordinator for Global Forest Coalition (photo by Langelle/GJEP). Anne Petermann is GFC’s North American Focal Point.